#MentalHealth month week 1: Keeping people experiencing a mental health crisis out of police custody

Section 136 (s.136) of the Mental Health Act 1983 says that if a police officer encounters a person who appears to be experiencing a mental health crisis, they have the power to remove that person to ‘a place of safety’.

In the past, too often out of a lack of alternative options, this ‘place of safety’ resulted in police custody; in taking a vulnerable person who was unwell but not under suspicion of having committed an offence to a police station or a cell.

Despite nominally acting to protect the safety of the individual, the practice of using police cells for people in mental health crisis can exacerbate their distress and cause lasting damage.

In 2013, the Mental Health Partnership Board was established to promote closer working with the Metropolitan Police, to help those in times of mental health crisis get to the right place of safety, and drive down the use of police cells as ‘places of safety’.

It was, and is, a huge challenge. There are over 4,000 s.136s every year in London, an average of 12 per day. According to NHS England, in the last two years the use of s.136s has increased in London by 9% - most notably among the capital’s young people.

However thanks to a collaborative effort, a London-wide commitment – under the Crisis Care Concordat – to transforming crisis services and outlawing the use of police cells as ‘places of safety’ has become a reality.

The work done to date has seen the use of police custody as a ‘place of safety’ in London reduce from 87 times in 2013, to 22 in 2014 and down to 18 in 2015. However until this number is reduced to zero, London’s services must – and will - do more.

To learn more about crisis service transformation in London, read the London Mental Health Factbook.

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