‘The system is broken’ - emergency mental health 999 incidents double

Police officers patrolling Norwich city centre. Picture: Nick Butcher

Police officers patrolling Norwich city centre. Picture: Nick Butcher - Credit: Nick Butcher

Urgent mental health-related incidents attended by police officers have almost doubled in four years as pressures on the 999 service grow.

Norfolk police control room at Wymondham. Photo: Bill Smith

Norfolk police control room at Wymondham. Photo: Bill Smith

Norfolk Police are now dealing with an extra 10,000 mental health incidents each year compared with 2014, a Freedom of Information request has revealed.

And those which come through the emergency 999 number have now passed 6,000 every year.

Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust has said they are seeing "more and more people in crisis", and that mental health is a "system-wide issue"..

Police officers have said it is one of the "big drains on resources" and suggested refusing to attend mental health calls could be the "only way" to prompt urgent action from health bosses.

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Andy Symonds, chairman of the Norfolk Police Federation, said: "The system is broken".

"We are filling the gap in mental health services that do not really exist."

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At the start of the year a Freedom of Information request revealed people in Norfolk had been detained in police stations for more than 40 hours awaiting assessment or transfer to hospital.

Mr Symonds said officers, who are not medically trained, will usually opt to detain someone under a section 136 place of safety order to avoid an incident occurring.

But it requires at least two police officers, and can make the person in crisis "feel they are under arrest".

"We can sit there for hours on end waiting for mental health services," he said. "It can be whole shifts sometimes for one incident.

"It is not fair for the person. It is a small area we take them to and we end up sitting on top of each other. They feel they are under arrest and like they are in a cell. It is not a good place to be.

"We get a very small amount of training but it is not enough for people experiencing a mental health episode."

A dedicated officer has now been assigned to Hellesdon Hospital to help deal with the increase in call-outs to the mental health facility.

But Mr Symonds said section 136 jobs have become a "huge drain on resources".

"All that time the officers are not out there dealing with burglaries or serious violence," he said. "They are in a hospital trying their best to look after someone going through a mental health episode.

"It is a real nightmare.

Andy Symonds, chairman of Norfolk Police Federation. Picture Andy Symonds

Andy Symonds, chairman of Norfolk Police Federation. Picture Andy Symonds - Credit: Archant

"We are the service of first resort and people think police will deal with it. It has become our job when you have got services who have retreated through austerity - the police end up dealing with it.

"As long as we keep doing it, the longer other public sectors will keep stepping back.

"Saying we won't do it any longer might be the only way they see we shouldn't be leaving people with police officers for hours on end until we make that assessment.

"But we will never say no."

Norfolk Police now has dedicated mental health nurses taking shifts in their control room to help provide information on a particular patient, avoiding the need to section them.

T/Assistant Chief Constable Nick Davison said mental health-related incidents are "a significant and growing part of our day to day work".

"Norfolk Constabulary regularly assesses and reviews the impact that mental health demand has on our already stretched police resources," he said.

"We are continually working to gain a better understanding of the demand we face in this area. It must be remembered that the fundamental role of the police service is to keep members of the public safe and protect them from harm and this is our primary aim in any situation.

A team of mental health nurses have been embedded in the Norfolk Police control room. Terri Cooper-B

A team of mental health nurses have been embedded in the Norfolk Police control room. Terri Cooper-Barnes, right, mental health advice team leader, with PC Robert Whiting. From left, mental health nurses Sam Fuller, and Sarah Dawson, and drug and alcohol support worker, Gina Roper. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2017

"Our officers strive every day to protect the vulnerable, often in difficult and complex situations on the frontline, working with our health partners to ensure people receive the treatment and support they need.

"As well as our triage service in the control room, we also have a mental health advice team based in our control room.

"These practitioners will assist with urgent calls when requested by officers or pre-arranged appointments as necessary and we also provide on-going officer training.

"We continue to work closely with our partners in the mental health community at a local, regional working group level and national level, in line with our mental health action plan.

"It is only through a collective effort will we make sure that those who need mental health support receive the very best service possible."

More people in crisis

A spokesperson for NSFT said: "Mental health is a system-wide issue and NSFT works closely with our partner organisations, including the police, ambulance service, GPs and social care to improve the quality of 24-hour care we all deliver to service users.

"As has been seen in other NHS trusts nationally, demand for mental health services has steadily increased over the past five years from people who are increasingly more unwell than before and we are seeing more and more people in crisis. This, in turn, puts more pressure on all of our services.

"We are working in partnership with our commissioners to collectively manage these issues and to ensure that people coming to the attention of the police receive an assessment of their mental health needs as soon as possible and are directed to appropriate services at the earliest opportunity.

"This includes mental health staff in Norfolk working in the police control room and attending appointments with officers when police identify someone who is a person of concern and may require mental health support."

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