The crisis in mental health care is taking Surrey Police officers off the front line – with two officers recently spending a full week with a single vulnerable person, the county’s Police and Crime Commissioner has warned.
As national Mental Health Awareness Week begins, Lisa Townsend said the burden of care is falling on officers’ shoulders amid nationwide challenges to provide support to the most vulnerable.
However, a new national model that will take the responsibility away from police will bring “real and fundamental change”, said Surrey’s PCC, who is also the national lead for mental health and custody for the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners.
Over the past seven years, the number of hours police in Surrey are spending with people in crisis has almost trebled. In 2022/23, officers dedicated 3,875 hours to supporting those in need under section 136 of the Mental Health Act, which gives police the power to remove a person believed to be suffering from a mental disorder and in need of immediate care to a place of safety. All section 136 incidents are double-crewed, meaning more than one officer must attend.
In February 2023 alone, officers spent 515 hours on incidents relating to mental health – the highest number of hours ever recorded in a single month by the force.
More than 60 people were detained when they were in crisis in February. The detentions were mostly in police vehicles as a result of ambulance shortages.
During March, two officers spent a full week supporting a vulnerable person – taking the officers away from their other duties.
Across England and Wales, there was a 20 per cent increase in the number of mental health incidents police had to attend last year, according to data from 29 of 43 forces.
Mrs Townsend said the issue draws officers away from fighting crime and may even be “dangerous” for a vulnerable person’s wellbeing.
“These figures show the huge damage caused across society when appropriate interventions aren’t made by the NHS,” she said.
“It is neither safe nor appropriate for police to pick up the pieces of a failing mental health care system, and may even be dangerous for the wellbeing of a person in crisis, although officers should be applauded for the fantastic job they do under a great deal of pressure.
“Unlike doctor’s surgeries, community health outreach programmes or council services, the police are available 24 hours a day.
“We have seen time and time again that 999 calls to help someone in distress spike as other agencies close their doors.
“The time has come for real and fundamental change.
“In the coming months, we hope that forces around the country will no longer have to attend every mental health incident reported. We’ll instead follow a new initiative called Right Care, Right Person, which began in Humberside and has saved officers there more than 1,100 hours per month.
“It means that when there are concerns for a person’s welfare that’s linked to their mental health, medical or social care issues, they’ll be seen by the right person with the best skills, training and experience.
“This will help officers return to the job they have chosen – that of keeping Surrey safe.”