Healthcare news

Police used as 'last resort' for mentally ill patients due to lack of NHS crisis services

An audit report has warned that police are dealing with 20,000 incidents a year involving mentally ill people
Seanín Graham

NORTHERN Ireland's justice system is being used as a last resort for people with mental health issues who cannot access NHS services, a new audit report has warned.

The watchdog research reveals that the PSNI are now receiving more than 20,000 reports a year of incidents involving vulnerable individuals in a crisis - more than double the 2013 figure - but where a crime has not been committed.

Police responding to these are often confronted by situations requiring "skills and experience outside their training", according to the 'Mental Health in the Criminal Justice System' report.

"As the health system here has found it challenging to respond to this growth, the justice system is coming into contact with increasing numbers of people who have not been able to access key health and social services that they need," it states.

The report has been released to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week and outlines the challenges for the prison and probation service in trying to rehabilitate prisoners who require specialist care.

Others findings include:

- More than a third of those entering prison custody were in contact with community mental health services

- Mental health issues were identified in 42 per cent of offenders

- Almost 80 per cent of those who receive a custodial sentence served less than a year

Auditor and comptroller general Kieran Donnelly said: "Justice organisations are increasingly working with individuals with mental health issues who have fallen between the gaps in wider public service.

"While the justice system is pursuing a range of reform measures to meet this challenge, the evidence to date suggests that more effective co-ordination is required between justice agencies and other key services, particularly health, education and housing services."

The report stated that sometimes police respond to an incident where an individual is exhibiting behaviour suggestive of mental health problems, to the extent that they are perceived to be a risk to themselves or others.

It stated: "Typically, the outcome is that officers either detain the person and bring them for appropriate medical attention or convince them to seek attention voluntarily.

"These calls can impose significant operational demands upon the PSNI, often taking up to half an hour to resolve, imposing greater demands on the call management system.

"Responding officers can often be involved for between 18 and 30 hours, reducing the PSNI's operational capacity for that duration."

When the PSNI interviews someone identified as mentally vulnerable, that person is provided with an appropriate adult, who gives support to the individual in custody and while being interviewed.

Mr Donnelly's recommendations include stronger cross-departmental leadership and better recording of mental health issues.

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