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Saturday, 5 November 2016

Distress is NOT a crime: People in crisis being detained by police

**TW this article mentions suicide, but in no details.**

There have been three articles published by the Guardian this autumn about the interface between the police and mental health services.

These articles have me stop and think, and my emotional reaction has been that of anger. Anger that the government is not prioritising the funding and resourcing of mental health care. This means that the police are having to step in in the absence of urgent care mental health services, such as in the case of Kate Simpkins who had to sleep in the back of a police car (Guardian, 2nd Sept. 2016) as there were no hospital beds for her in the whole of the county.



Kate Simpkins has had the courage to speak out about her experience and in doing so is spreading the message that in many areas people are resorting to uncomfortable, ad hoc, and quite frankly, ludicrous arrangements in the midst of a mental health crisis. This is not okay.

Articles such as Police say they are becoming emergency mental health services (Guardian, 9th October) are highlighting that vulnerable and distressed people are being held in police custody for long periods of time- up to 72 hours- before they are transferred to a healthcare setting.

Let me give a bit of background to this. The Mental Health Act of 1983 states that police custody may be used as a safe place for people in a mental health crisis, even if there is no indication that they have committed a crime.

The police can use Section 136 of the Mental Health Act to remove people experiencing 'mental disorder' from a public place to 'a place of safety'. This place of safety may be a hospital or a police station. Although hospitals can be far from the places of compassion that they ought to be (see my post about when nurse told me to leave A&E or they would call the police), it can be argued that they are more likely to be appropriate for people who are mentally unwell than police stations are.

A lack of hospital beds and resources from crisis teams means that people who are being given a Section 136 are having to be held in police custody, rather than being taken to healthcare settings for appropriate treatment.

I have several issues with this. Vulnerable adults, and young people too, who are experiencing acute mental distress of all kinds, are spending up to 72 hours in police cells. I appreciate that the safety of the person going through mental distress is of utmost importance. But it shouldn't be the case that hospital beds are simply not available. There is no excuse, this 2016 and the Conservative government has promised 'parity' for mental health and physical health. This has not happened.

Not only are police stations and cells uncomfortable places, but police officers are not trained like mental health professionals. It is imperative to recognise here too 'approximately half of all deaths in or following police custody involve detainees with some form of mental health problem' (Independent Police Complaints Commission). I can conclude that police custody is not necessarily a 'safe space' for those experiencing distress. Whilst many police officers may be caring individuals, they must not be a substitute for a mental health professional.


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From my sketchbook.

Not only are people being held in uncomfortable situations without access to the kind of treatment they need quickly, I take further issue with people regularly detained by the police. It reinforces the shame that many people with experience of mental distress feel.

Police custody is synonymous with crime. People in distress, often already suffering mental agony that many people couldn't even begin to imagine, are having to question their own innocence and integrity.

When I have been distressed and police have been mentioned, it only served to reinforce the stigma I felt within myself- that there was something 'wrong' with me for feeling this way. Or that there was something 'bad' about me. There is NOTHING wrong with being mentally unwell or being in crisis. Nothing at all. But it's easy to feel like there is when you're incredibly distressed and vulnerable.

Furthermore, whenever getting the police involved has been mentioned to me, it made me feel extremely frightened of things happening that I had no control over. Such as being taken in a police car or spending time in the police station against my will.  Not only was there fear of the unknown and being out of control, but I also felt demonised. I have never ever made any threats or indications that I will harm other people, my thoughts and feelings have always been about hurting myself, not others.

It seems backwards to be mingling suicidal thoughts and plans with the police (suicide was a crime until 1961). In my opinion suicidal thoughts should be safely dealt with in a therapeutic manner within the healthcare system and should not within the police system. A suicidal person in contact with the police system is likely to begin to question their own innocence, integrity and who they are as a person because of their location. No one should have the already often muddy waters of suicide further muddied by being held into a space connoting crime. 

As a person who has undergone my own experiences of acute mental distress, I find it hugely unacceptable  that people in crisis are being detained in cells or are sleeping in the back of police cars because there are no beds available. 

I find it deeply worrying that so many vulnerable people are having to question whether there is something 'wrong' or 'bad' with being in crisis because they have ended up in the back of a police car or in a cell- simply because mental health services are at breaking point.

Distress is not a crime.

People in crisis need to be taken to compassionate healthcare settings rather than be detained by police because there is nowhere else for us to go. I'm fed up with  mental health being the poor sister of physical health. I'm angry about it and it must change.

Please tweet me with your thoughts @TalkingAboutBPD using the hashtag #NotACrime. I would love to hear your experiences and opinions.