Shaun Sawyer, chief constable of Devon and Cornwall Police has written to Devon Partnership NHS threatening legal action unless they address a significant lack of beds for mentally ill people. It appears that Sawyer has lost patience with holding vulnerable civilians in cells rather than giving them suitable care under the NHS when they are arrested. Deputy Chief Constable, Bill Skelly, has also expressed his views on the situation, explaining the adverse effects such detainment can have on the mentally ill individual, their families and even the officers and staff involved in the process. One such distressful instance involves a woman from Exeter who was talked down after threatening to jump from a bridge – and then promptly put in a cell as the last place of safety available.
Under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act, the police are allowed to take mentally ill people they believe to be at risk or a risk to others out of public areas and into a place of safety. What this translates to is the use of hospitals or care homes, although in “exceptional circumstances” police custody also counts as a safe place. Although the number has reduced in recent years, Sawyer argued that the current situation is still outrageous – detaining an innocent, distressed individual for anything up to four days is “just not acceptable.”
Trust Chief Executive Melanie Walker has expressed disappointment in Sawyer’s position as the NHS, along with other public services, is already under strain. However, according to the BBC, she will be speaking with Sawyer in order to try and lessen time people are held to ensure it does not reach such long periods of time without substantial mental health care. During PMQs, Theresa May suggested Britain is spending the highest amount ever on mental health services – an estimated £11.7 billion – particularly in increasing the number of children’s beds available, which may prove to help lessen the severity of the situation. Although this is a positive move for improving overall mental health care, it may not help the specific scenario of mentally ill adults being “unlawfully” detained that Sawyer is specifically angered about.