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Mentally ill teenagers will no longer be held in police cells

The home secretary is to announce changes to the Mental Health Act to ensure mentally ill teenagers will no longer be held in police cells when they should be in a hospital bed.

The review of mental health laws in England and Wales will also ensure that police cells are used only as a ‘place of safety’ for adults when their behaviour is so extreme they cannot be managed elsewhere.

Working with the Department of Health, Theresa May will make the changes initially through guidance to police to ensure that reforms get under way before the general election.

But the joint review by May and health secretary Jeremy Hunt will also recommend amendments to legislation, specifically Section 135 of the Mental Health Act, so under-18s are never taken to police cells if detained under mental health legislation.

It is also expected to recommend reducing the maximum length of detention of someone in mental distress from 72 to 24 hours.

Last month, the Devon and Cornwall police service complained that they were being forced to hold a 16-year-old girl with mental health problems in a cell for two days because there was no hospital bed available. She was eventually placed in an adult hospital bed.

Hunt blamed “poor communication on the ground” for the girl ending up in cells, but Devon and Cornwall NHS bosses, and the leader of the police force, sent a joint letter to ministers rebutting this.

The letter, dated a week after the health secretary’s comments, signed by leaders of NHS mental health bodies in Devon and Cornwall, and the chief constable for the two counties, says police cells should only be used “on an exceptional basis” and holding an unstable teenager in a cell is “clearly unacceptable”.

It adds that a shortage of beds and the coalition health reforms have fuelled this “unacceptable” practice.

The use of police cells to hold mentally ill people has started to fall, dropping from 8,667 occasions in 2011-12 to 6,028 in 2013-14, but they are still being used instead of hospital beds or community places in more than a third of cases.

Last year 236 under-18s ended up in cells when they should have been in hospital. The year before 263 children were held in cells.

The review is also to amend Section 136 of the act to ensure it can be applied anywhere except a private home. This means the police power to remove someone from a public place if they think they have a mental illness and are in immediate need of care and control will also apply to the railways, private vehicles, rooftops, hotel rooms and workplaces for the first time. The police will be required to consult a suitable health professional before detaining someone under Section 136 if it is possible to do so.

Reports claim that the Department of Health has been encouraged to make extra resources available to create more beds for children and adolescents, which would be matched by significant savings in the police budget, making the move cost-neutral across government.

Paul Farmer, chief executive of the mental health charity Mind, said: "Being in mental health crisis can be frightening, confusing and even life-threatening, which means that urgent care from mental health services is vital. A police cell is a completely inappropriate place to put someone who is so unwell and this is particularly true for children, so we welcome any revisions to the Mental Health Act that will put a stop to this. It is also important to acknowledge that it’s no more appropriate for adults to be put in police cells, yet this continues to happen too frequently.

“Very often people with mental health problems are being put in cells because of a lack of health-based alternatives. Committing to putting a stop to young people being placed in police cells can’t become a reality if there aren’t appropriate mental health services in place as an alternative. Commissioners must address this and make sure that mental health is given its fair share of the budget to ensure that services are properly resourced to meet demand."

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email [email protected]


Marinaba   18/12/2014 at 11:28

At last! My friend's son was killed in police custody after taking an overdose. Held overnight instead of being taken to hospital. He was dead by morning - this happens quite a lot. And what about the people with dementia being held in prisons due to lack of hospital beds? Time to stop wasting taxpayer's money on ridiculous wages for the top brass who don't do a decent job at all and putting the money where it should be

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