Almost half the adults arrested in Lancashire have mental health issues, it has been revealed.
More than 10,000 people detained by police in a single year had suffered with problems with their mental health or been diagnosed with learning difficulties.
The figures, uncovered following a Freedom of Information request, have sparked warnings the police are being left to “pick up the pieces” amid a growing mental health crisis.
Lancashire Police said it was facing “unprecedented levels of demand” at a time when public sector cuts meant many patients are not getting the help they need in time.
But while people with mental health problems have been over-represented in custody suites – it is thought around one in four of the population suffer in some way – Lancashire is pioneering a new scheme to tackle the problem that could potentially save thousands of hours of police time each year.
A spokesman for Lancashire Police said: “The reality of policing today is that we are facing unprecedented levels of demand involving people reaching crisis point with mental health issues.
“On many occasions the police service is becoming the first service people reach out to respond to this.
“However, in a lot of cases the most appropriate person to support someone in crisis is a mental health professional, not a police officer.
“Rightly, our officers will want to support the person to the best of their abilities and signpost them to the relevant agency where possible.”
In response to a Freedom of Information request, the force revealed it arrested 23,070 adults in 2017.
Of those, 10,450 disclosed a mental health problem or diagnosed learning disorder to officers.
It mirrors a growing national trend, with inspectors recently warning police were being left to “pick up the pieces” of a “broken” mental health system.
In its report, published in November, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary Fire and Rescue Services said half of the time, people are being taken to a place of safety by police and not in an ambulance.
The Metropolitan Police, the UK’s largest force, deals with a mental health call once every four minutes and sends an officer out to deal with mental health issues once every 12 minutes, the report added.
Clive Grunshaw, Lancashire’s Police and Crime Commissioner said: “Lancashire Constabulary ensures that vulnerable suspects are supported.
“Several initiatives rolled out across the force include autism awareness training and easy read custody handouts, which take into account the number of people who come into custody who need this extra support.
“There is also the trial taking place across the Fylde coast where an officer deploys alongside a paramedic and a mental health crisis team nurse to provide specialist support and care.
“Demand on the service is becoming more complex, with the police increasingly becoming the emergency service of first resort as cuts across public sector partners continue to impact the support that they offer.”
Alison Cobb, specialist policy adviser at the mental health charity Mind, said: “It’s difficult to draw conclusions from the data about any link between the arrests and mental health problems in Lancashire.
“Mental health is core police business – they have specific powers under the Mental Health Act to detain people and keep them safe until the NHS can make an assessment, and they will also come into contact with people with mental health problems as victims, witnesses and perpetrators of crimes.
“The police are often first on the scene if someone is in mental health crisis and we do know that the police often pick up the pieces in crisis situations as a result of increased demand and decades of underfunding of mental health services.
“They need the right support from the NHS to make sure someone in crisis gets the help they need.
“In other circumstances, such as when someone with mental health problems is arrested for an offence, it is important that they are assessed and get the right treatment and support.”
For support with mental health problems, calls the Samaritans free 24-hour helpline 116 123.
Getting people the help they need
More than 100 people a month have been helped by a pioneering scheme to support mental health patients in crisis.
Based on the Fylde coast, it sees police, paramedics and mental health workers team up to respond to calls for help that would otherwise have been left to the police.
As a result, people that may otherwise have ended up in custody are getting the help they need – easing the burden on both the police and A&E.
Insp Pete Hannon said the team attended 139 incidents in January and 133 in December. Of those, just 11 were detained by officers.
He said he was “extremely pleased” with the results so far, with the scheme helping to reduce the strain on police, paramedics and the NHS.
When a police officer detains a person under section 136 of the Mental Health Act, they become responsible for their safety.
The law allows for people to be held for up to 24 hours – and in some cases 36 – meaning officers can be off the front line for entire shifts as a result.
As a result, the scheme has the potential to save tens of thousands of hours of police time, freeing up officers for other work, and could be expanded to the rest of the county.
Insp Hannon added: “But more importantly, this is a much better outcome for the vulnerable members of our community who are receiving face to face help and advice from those best placed to help.
“The vehicle is performing better than we could have hoped for.”
Feedback from the community has been “great”, he said.
The pilot is due to come to an end in the spring, and senior officers will decide whether to roll it out more widely based on the results.
‘A broken system’
The report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire and Rescue Services, published in November, said police were spending too much time dealing with mental health issues.
It said: “We have significant concerns about whether police should be involved in responding to mental health problems to the degree that they are.
“We cannot expect the police to pick up the pieces of a broken mental health system.
“Overstretched and all too often overwhelmed police officers can’t always respond appropriately, and people in mental health crisis don’t always get the help they need.
“People in crisis with mental health problems need expert support – support that can’t be carried out in the back of a police car or by locking them into a police cell.
“All too often, the system is failing people when they most need help.”