In my latest blog post about the reform of the Mental Health Act I want to talk about how the police deal with those in crisis.
I’ve had personal experience of being in contact with the police when I was unwell and this inspired me to write a ‘survival guide’ for people with a mental illness who come in contact with the criminal justice system.
Many people I’ve spoken to have raised concerns about the way the criminal justice system deals with mental illness.
The good news is that the National Assembly for Wales recently conducted a consultation on mental health in policing and police custody (now closed). You can read a response from Hafal (in partnership with Cais and the Morgan Academy) here.
I find it encouraging that a committee is looking into problems raised by the police who spend a lot of their time and resources on mental health-related issues. Much of this activity focuses on Section 136 of the Mental Health Act.
My main concern is that although good progress is being made in not using cells for people in crisis, there is a more fundamental problem: many people don’t get picked up by mental health services in the first place and so don’t get the help they need, which is why they end up in crisis and come into contact with the police.
In an earlier blog post I argue that what people with a mental illness really need are rights to early and responsive treatment which prevent crisis and the subsequent use of a Section 136.
Essentially, the police are not equipped to deal with mental health issues as they are not a health service.
As well as providing mental health services across Wales, Hafal also provides an appropriate adult service in every police area of Wales. Appropriate adults provide support and advice to vulnerable detainees when they are in police custody. Speaking to Hafal’s staff and specifically its appropriate adult team it becomes clear that in our experience there are insufficient health and social care services available to support police officers in Wales to divert people with mental health problems away from police custody.
There is also a specific problem in not having sanctuary facilities in Wales, the nearest being in Bristol. My colleagues at Hafal tell me that one attempt to develop this service in Cardiff had wide support but could not obtain commitment from one agency; the good news is that other initiatives are now in hand in Swansea and Llanelli, although this still only serves a small area of Wales.
Lack of sanctuary or similar services means that some individuals, having no alternative out-of-hours service to turn to, repeatedly come into contact with police but are not assessed as being in crisis.
On the subject of criminal justice, I was really pleased to see that the Sentencing Council published proposed new guidance for sentencing offenders with mental health conditions and disorders earlier this year.
The idea is that when the guidance is published in its final form, judges and magistrates in England and Wales will, for the first time, have a clear structure and process to follow when sentencing people with mental health conditions.
The Sentencing Council has launched a consultation on its proposed guidelines. On first inspection the guidelines look promising and I welcome them – but we need to drive home the message about fairness for people with mental health problems who appear in court, so I’m currently working with Hafal on a response to the consultation.
Can you help us with this? I’m interested to hear about any experience you have had of sentencing in court – yourself or somebody you were supporting. Let me know what happened and whether your mental health (or the mental health of the person you were supporting) was taken into account.
And if you are able to look at the draft guidelines let me know if you think they balance the need to protect the public with the rights and needs of offenders? Are they clear enough for sentencers to follow? And are they sensitive to individuals’ circumstances?
Together we can fight for a fair Mental Health Act which is focused on the needs of service users and carers, and which works in our unique Welsh context.