At the end of last year a report by the Health and Social Care information centre indicated that up to 36% of people detained under the mental health act had been taken to a police cell.

This is a deeply worrying statistic and one that has driven Police and Crime Commissioners around the country to take action.

Section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983 was designed so that police cells could be used as a place of safety only in exceptional cases. Sadly, it would seem that around the country cells are being used far too often, often as a desperate last resort. This includes cases involving some of the most vulnerable in our society – young people, veterans, and those who desperately require care from specially trained health professionals.

Chief Officers here on Merseyside recently assessed that up to 20% of all call to the Force are now related to mental health issues. This places a massive strain on the organisation, but I am pleased to say Merseyside Police and our health partners are responding effectively.

So well in fact, that in Merseyside it is actually incredibly rare for anyone in mental health crisis to end up in a prison cell. This is all thanks to some innovative partnerships which are working to improve the treatment and care of those with mental health needs, while also releasing valuable police time and ensuring officers are back on the beat more quickly.

A prime example of this is the Red Amber Green (RAG) risk assessment initiative, pioneered by Merseyside Police’s Detective Superintendent Tim Keelan and our dedicated Mental Health Liaison Officer Hayley Sherwen in collaboration with the Mersey Care NHS Trust.

This scheme ensures anyone believed to have mental health problems is taken straight to dedicated healthcare professionals in A&E departments, so an assessment can be carried out in a safe and secure environment, while allowing officers more time to carry out their duties on the streets.

This scheme has already dramatically reduced waiting times for Mental Health Act 136 referrals.   Three years ago police officers engaged in 136s in the Mersey Care Trust’s area were waiting an average of nine hours per assessment. Using the RAG system, we have seen this average reduce to less than three hours per assessment.

To further improve this work, earlier this year the Force and Mersey Care again united to launch a “136 Street Triage Car” service across Liverpool, learning from others across England. This initiative sees police officers and mental health nurses working together to provide a dynamic, mobile service to individuals suffering mental health crisis, ensuring ill people are given the best possible care, by trained health professionals often at a time of acute need.

But it doesn’t stop there. Those individuals who do need to be detained are not neglected. Merseyside now has Criminal Justice Mental Health Liaison Teams working in our custody suites.  These in-house mental health nurses are on hand to offer support and care at that critical moment when someone may be at their lowest ebb.

The Mental Health Liaison Team also helps officers respond to calls and can provide assessments to identify those with problems in order to cut reoffending. The team also support individuals either through the criminal justice process or help to divert individuals in poor mental health to better services to help them recover.

It’s been successful. Earlier this year, Mersey Care NHS Trust was selected as one of just 10 organisations to secure additional NHS England funding as part of the National Diversion Programme to extend the hours of this provision. This now means anyone from the age of 10 upwards is given care between 7am and 10pm, 365 days a year.

This work has also been so effective it was highlighted in the Force’s last HMIC custody review, when inspectors praised this type of liaison and diversion scheme. In 2017, when – as we all hope and anticipate –  this programme is rolled out nationwide, Merseyside will be ahead of the game in terms of mental health provision and be able to take pride in the fact our region was among the first to put this scheme into operation.

All these initiatives are designed to save officers’ time, reduce costs and hospital waiting times but, most importantly, they will help to ensure people experiencing mental ill health are given the care and support they need.

So what can I add as Police and Crime Commissioner? PCCs in some areas have been deeply concerned about the over-reliance on the police service around the country to respond to cases where individuals clearly need specialist health care.

In March, PCCs united to develop the Mental Health Concordat, alongside organisations like the police, NHS Trusts and local authorities. This Concordat is a multi-agency mental health agreement that sets out how we should work together in order to deliver a high-quality response, help and on-going support to those mental ill health. It acts as a pledge to improve crisis care and commits partners to work together to improve the system of care and support for those with mental health problems.

I have also been working with our partners in mental health care to raise awareness of the key issues among frontline responders. In January, alongside the ADHD Foundation, I hosted an awareness training course for officers, PCSOs and other staff of the condition. Experts in the field detailed how to recognise the characteristic behaviour and symptoms of the disorder when they come across it in their working lives.

In October, to mark World Mental Health Day, we united with the Beacon Counselling Trust to host a major seminar to raise awareness among more than 130 ‘first responders’ in the police and other services and promote understanding of mental conditions. We have also increased awareness of the needs of those suffering mental ill health in custody among our Independent Custody Visitors and, next year, I will be hosting a further seminar on learning disabilities, such as autism and Asperger’s Syndrome.

Police officers are often the first to respond to a call for help and that’s why it is important they are both trained and supported by specialist healthcare providers in the most effective and efficient way to help people who may be at their lowest ebb.

But while a police officer will still be on the frontline of care, a prison cell is not the right place for anyone suffering a mental health crisis. Individuals suffering mental ill health need the right care, at the right time and in the right place. That is why getting that care to them is so important.

Jane Kennedy, Merseyside Police Commissioner

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